Thursday, March 15, 2007

Employment Ethics Redux

The only post that did not survive my blogotastrophy earlier this month was the most recent post (apparently Google had not had enough time to cache that one). So, I ask you all, can you build for me a biblical ethic of employment? Obviously, the topic is relevant to the current Baptist blog discussion. But beyond that, it is a topic that is relevant to virtually every member of your church. It is highly likely to be relevant to yourself. What does the Bible say? Here are some biblical topics that I think could be relevant:
  1. Stewardship
  2. An obligation to pay promised wages (James 5:1-6, esp. 4)
  3. Obligations of masters toward slaves and slaves toward masters (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2)
  4. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard? (Matthew 20:1-16)
  5. Work-related passages in the Proverbs and elsewhere (like 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
Using this list, plus whatever other material you could contribute, can you devise a biblical ethic of employment? It would need to be one that could cover both the situation of the rich employing the poor and the poor employing the rich (e.g., Ted Kennedy working for the rest of us in the United States Senate). I'll offer a few observations that hint toward my position:
  1. Although I see no proscription in the Bible against the idea of collective bargaining, certainly there is no prescription for it, either. The moral standard offered in Jesus' parable in Matthew 20 (and I think that the morality of the employer is precisely the point of the parable) is that the employer lived up to the terms of his individual negotiations with each laborer. There is nothing inherently unfair about letting each employee negotiate for himself, even if the comparative result appears inequitable.
  2. The most prominent employment-related rule in the scripture requires that employers pay agreed-upon wages for work performed.
  3. Rights to vacation time, sick days, 401-K retirement matching, universal health care, seniority, tenure, early retirement, overtime pay, etc., are not biblical concepts. They are fine to the degree that they are the fruit of negotiation between employer and employee, but an employer's above-board refusal to provide such things is in no way immoral.
  4. An employer's first obligation is as a steward of the institution. It is better to fire one employee for the betterment of the institution than by laxity in firing to run the institution into the ground and endanger the jobs of all the institution's employees.
  5. It follows from the preceding principle that some sense of non-discriminatory hiring is incumbent upon employers. The employer who foregoes the hiring of a superior employee simply because of race, religion, etc., places the institution at a comparative disadvantage to the institution that does hire the superior employee. This is poor stewardship of the institution. Of course, this assumes that the attribute by which one discriminates does not affect aptitude for the job. An audio post-production facility might very well want to hire a blind person; American Airlines's pilot recruiters probably should not. Religious conviction ought to be a factor in most of our denominational hires. The Bible makes gender a relevant factor in at least some ministry-related considerations. But for a church to discriminate against a potential pastor because he is, for example, older than 50 is a foolish decision.
  6. To summarize for those of us in the employee pool: Nobody has a Christian obligation to provide a job for you. Nobody has a Christian obligation to allow you to continue in your present job. Nobody has a Christian obligation to make certain that your remuneration in your job is at equity with that of other people with the same or similar jobs. To the degree that you can demonstrate that you add superior overall value to an institution, the employer has the obligation to the owners of the institution to hire you if he can.


Anonymous said...

The parable of Matthew 20 is a parable about the Kingdom. If we are going to use that parable as a guide for employment principles then the work place will be a place where grace trumps our notions of what is fair or equitable. Considering the many admonitions in the Old Testament about weighing with untainted scales, doing justly and so forth I believe it is a stretch to override those principles with a secondary application of this parable (I'm sure we would agree that Jesus' primary point in that parable was not about fair labor practices). Those passages that do primarily speak to justice and how we are to treat one another should, I believe, be foremost in our minds in that regard. But if we are going to fall back on that parable then it would be interesting to see how grace would trump what is considered "fair" in that context. I believe grace always exceeds fair and just. It certainly doesn't do less. Those who went to work at the beginning of the day got exactly what they were promised. The others got more than the first got (in relation to time worked), not less.

I would add that an employer has an obligation to fulfill his/her promises of employment to his/her employees.

Second, if the terms of employment change after the employee has been hired, the employee should either have the opportunity to be grandfathered if that is possible or to be retrained at the company's expense for an equal-paying job. When I was with AT&T Wireless Services we did this three times in five years through three major reorganizations. Some of the things we did we were required to do. Others we did because we believe they were right to do and because we valued our employees enough to want to do everything we could to keep them. Of course, our motto was "Hire and develop great employees." We believed we had great people who were worth keeping because great people build great companies. And again, I believe Kingdom principles always go beyond the bare minimum required.

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

This is way over my head. However, after reading it, I think I still have too much of my Daddy's Democrat thinking in me. I must think on this more before I respond.


Bart Barber said...


Be neither Republican or Democrat. Show us what the Bible says.

And let us all keep in mind, there will be requirements beyond this, forced upon us by law or by the competitive market. I'm not asking for the entire book on employment ethics. I'm asking about what the Bible says about employment ethics.

Bart Barber said...


We all realize the hermeneutical principles required to deal correctly with parables. The central feature of this parable—the key element of the story—is that the complaint of inequity is unfounded. You and I both correctly observe that each employee received for his labor precisely the wage that he negotiated with the employer.

I agree that an employer has the obligation to fulfill promises to the employee. This is a general part of Christian ethics, not precisely a part of employment ethics.

As far as "grandfathering" goes: If an employer is bound by prior agreement, the employer has ethical obligation to fulfill what he has promised. If not, the Bible does not impose upon the employer any ethical obligation to preserve the original state of affairs. At least not that I can find.

Bart Barber said...

I should mention, the last time we looked at this subject, Gary Ledbetter left an astute comment recommending the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) as a rule for Christian conduct in employment. Of course, this rule runs both ways, imposing requirements upon the employee as well.

Bart Barber said...

I remind all who would comment, be sure to give us biblical basis for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Bart -- I am a bit uncomfortable saying the duty is to the "institution."

If we take the greatest commandment (love the Lord), the 2nd greatest commandment (love your neighbor), and put duty to principal as third, These circumscribe my duty.

First priority is to reflect God's priorities in the decision -- a God who is no respecter of position, but hearts. 2nd priority is to treat both persons respectfully, as images of God, and (perhaps), believers.

I can fire respectfully, if my decision reflects God's priorities. The institution cannot ask me to be unjust or violate the law (which violates both).

For example, let's say Board discovers problem between President and Employee. Assume that President is clearly in the wrong. But also assume that President's departure would kill the 'institution.' Should the risk of President's departure influence the Board's decision?

If duty to institution is my highest priority, I may be tempted to place survival of the institution above justice, respect, or legality.

There's also the question of who is the institution -- it would be wrong to confuse the 'leader' with the 'institution.' But that's another mistake, and perhaps another post...

Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

If you are going to hold me to the Bible I must confess it will be hard to give my opinion. Besides, doesn't 1 Corinthians 6 give us the wiggle room we need to decide whether to file a lawsuit or not? :>)

First, I believe the Bible teaches that we are to work. Though one may be independently wealthy there needs to be some sort of employee understanding of amassing that wealth. 2 Thess. 3:10

Second, I believe the Bible also teaches that we are to honor those who we are employed by. Titus 2:9-10

Third, I believe the Bible teaches we are to trust God to take care of us and also He will chastise us if we do not give an honest day's work. Colossians 3:22-25

Fourth, I believe the Bible teaches us that we are not to shop our wares around for the highest bidder. Luke 10:7

As an Employer, I believe that the Bible sets some guidelines that we must be aware of and follow.

First, I believe the Bible warns against paying only what you can get away with. James 5:4; 1 Corinthians 9:7

Second, I believe the Bible also teaches that the Employer is not to hold the wages of the Employee in order to make more money. It teaches that when the pay is due the pay should be given. Leviticus 19:13

Third, I believe the Bible teaches that the Employer is responsible not to keep around an Employee that is not doing the job. Proverbs 10:26

Fourth, I believe that Management should not ask an Employee to do something that the Supervisor is not willing to do himself/herself. Matthew 10:24

Fifth, I believe that the Bible teaches that Employers need to understand that the Lord sees and will reward them based on how they treat their Employees. Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1

This is not a systematically thought through Ethics review of labor relations. But it is something I believe the Bible teaches as I am an employee of the church I serve. Also, I heed the instructions I have laid out about how we view staff when we bring them on board.


ps, I really wanted to go to Ezra 4: 1-6 and Acts 19:23-27 to say that I believe the Bible forbids unions, but I do not really believe the Scripture supports that.


Anonymous said...

In addition to the aforementioned Golden Rule which calls us to exercize accountability as we would want to be held accountable (not original with me), I'd turn to Colossians 3:22-4:1 or Ephesians 6:5-9 also as a guide for parties in an employment relationship. It's not a perfect analog but it does honor proper authority, fairness, and conduct befitting a Christian worker and a Christian supervisor.

I do come down on the side of supervisors having a strong obligation to the institution, stronger than to the preferences of the employee (or his/her friends). The two priorities often clash and are not equal.

Every person has a boss (whether it is a person or a goal) on earth and a Master in heaven. We are stewards responsible to the owner or mission of our business or institution.

That stewardship must trump sentiment.


Tim Rogers said...

Brother Bart,

It appears that not as many people have an Employee/Employer ethic as there are that seem to question someone else's ethics concerning employment.


Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Brother Dr. Bart,

I poked a little fun at you on my blog this evening, and I wonder if you might like to stop by?


Love in Christ,


volfan007 said...


where are you at, bro? long time no see.


Anonymous said...


You have highlighted the major issues of a Christian work ethic in you original post very well. Obviously, many of the N.T. references to work have to do with the relationship of servants and masters, but I think general priciples apply to the employer/employee relationship. In the Ephesians 6 reference, Paul is continuing on the theme of the God ordained system of authority and submission. He gives three examples in that passage: husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters. There are obvious differences in each relationship, but the meaning seems clear. Those under authority should submit to those in authority. Another example of this relationship is found in the context of the local church (Hebrews 13:17). In all of these relationships, including a work relationship, there is the exception if a command is given that violates God's Word(see Acts 4:19-20). As in the command for wives to be subject to their own husbands, there are no qualifying words to describe the one who is to be submitted to. That is, the instruction to submit does not only apply to those who are worthy of respect or submission, but to all in authority.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand a union busting interpretation of the word. I do seem a couple of big ideas that are easy to find.

In a nutshell it seems like the Bible teaches that people are to work hard. Ephesians 4.28, Genesis 2-3.

It also seems like wealth should not be gained on the backs or at the expense of people in a lesser position of power. Amos 4, Ephesians 6, Philemon, Micah 6.

As for unions, I'm not sure that a group of people getting together as a check on being exploited is a bad thing. In a more general sense, the unions that get together to help members get together to negotiate collectively for more afforable health insurance and retirement planning is any different than the annuity board, or any other organization targeted towards white collar people. Acts describes church members giving for the good of the whole. I've never understood the hostility of preachers towards blue collar people. I hope it's just a cultural bias.

Thanks for the forum.


Bart Barber said...


I've been "working hard" in order to live up to Keith Sanders's employment ethic. My apologies for being a blog absentee largely of late.

Bart Barber said...

Little man,

Hostility toward blue collar people?


Where did you get that?

If you'll re-read the post, I think you'll find that it comes down in a neutral position on collective bargaining, stating that the Bible neither commands nor condones it. Am I hostile to blue collar people unless I conclude that the Bible REQUIRES collective bargaining?

Bart Barber said...

Little Man,

In the spirit of full disclosure, here is my personal opinion about unions, juxtaposed against my opinion about "blue collar people."

GOOD: Unions when they bring about child labor laws, common-sense safety measures, etc., to protect people from exploitation in the workplace. This is good for blue-collar people.

BAD: Unions when they require $30/hour pay for non-skilled positions and thereby drive jobs to Mexico and China, leaving blue-collar people unemployed. So says my Honda Accord.

Unions are in much the same boat as civil rights organizations. Victims of their own successes, they struggle to find a reasonable cause that they have not already conquered; therefore, they pursue unreasonable causes in order to prop up their own existences. Incredulity regarding the unreasonable causes that they now pursue does not necessarily equate to a lack of respect for the reasonable causes that they once faced and over which they triumphed.

Anonymous said...


Re: your reply to me... I'm not sure I would separate Christian ethics from employment ethics as Christian ethics will always result in the best employment ethics as well. In fact, you noted Gary Ledbetter's appeal to the Golden Rule, which is not a specific "employment" ethic, but is a Christian ethic. I'm not clear on the distinction you are making in that statement.

Regarding grandfathering, you are emphasizing what is required. I am emphasizing what may not be required, but may be both right and best to do. Unions sprang to life because employers were only willing to do what was "required." Thus, employees began to bargain for greater requirements. I would contend that a Christian ethic of employment would go beyond what Congress or the states mandate wherever possible. For a biblical example I think the entire little book of Philemon is a great example of what I'm saying (see esp. vv. 8-9, 14, 17-19).